“The one thing I am formally trained at is swimming. I’m aware I rely on this training when I’m working, that I know when to push through and when to rest, that I’ve figured out the equivalent of drills, interval training, and performance when I’m on a deadline or trying to realize a project. But I don’t know where to put the old skill, if I can, or even want to, incorporate it into my adult life.”
– Swimming Studies, Leanne Shapton
I started swimming lessons on Thursday. I took swimming every summer as a kid, but I wasn’t a particularly malleable student, and I only learned what I wanted to learn, namely, how to not drown, how to look more like a mermaid, and how to sneak up on other people in the water. I never learned to swim for exercise (something I think they only teach you on high school swim teams), and so when the August heat made it intolerable to be outdoors this month I decided to take private lessons on how to get from one end of a large pool to the other in a straight line without embarrassing myself or getting a headache from oxygen depravation.
After my first lesson I went to the bookstore to reward myself and get the second Neapolitan novel. I saw this book on an Olympic-themed endcap display and added it to my stack. This is how bookworms motivate themselves to get off of the couch- they read books about sports. That was the theory, anyway. I did not expect to like this book. I had no idea who Leanne Shapton was. I don’t normally read nonfiction at all. I read the first chapter that night, thinking I might return it if it was too athletic for me to relate to, and I read the rest of the book the next day in about six hours, plus meal and bathroom breaks.
It was funny, quirky, gorgeously written, pensive, arty, and echoing with a sort of suburban teenage angst (thank you, present tense) that is handled with gentleness and respect. The disconnect between the author’s swimming youth and artist adulthood is so strong it almost reads more like someone mourning a dead daughter or younger sister than the story of a former self. It’s overly stylized and nostalgic in a way that is easily mockable as hipster lit (from my post-read research it seems like Shapton definitely has a cult following among that crowd), but it manages to be sincere without irony, and beautiful spreads like an illustrated index of remembered smells or black-and-white plates of a swimsuit collection pay tribute to the sensory details of memory.
The first two thirds of the book are spent on describing the discipline of swimming and experience of growing up with your life totally devoted to one purpose, and the last third is a mediation on art, and ways in which being an artist is like and unlike being a swimmer. Making art versus becoming art, Shapton seems at one point to suggest. The first part is evocative, and the last thought-provoking.
Unfortunately this book made me want to read more instead of swim more, but you can’t have everything.